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Image: Clare Walsh

To say that Dolly Alderton has had something of a meteoric rise to success in the media industry is a bit of an understatement. At the grand old age of 28, the University of Exeter graduate is the Sunday Times Style magazine’s dating columnist, a former story producer for Made in Chelsea, a former script assistant on Fresh Meat, and someone who’s penned articles for magazines including Grazia and Cosmopolitan. It’s not bad for the girl who once lived in a “slug-infested” property on Vic Street. This former Exeter student’s memories of her time at the University are mixed, though.

“In retrospect, to be completely honest, it probably wasn’t the right university for me,” she tells me. “Bar one or two modules, I wasn’t hugely inspired by my course and I went a bit stir-crazy being in the Devon countryside for three years. I actually sometimes think I left Exeter less intelligent than when I arrived, perhaps down to my brain cells being zapped by vodka shark buckets at Mambo [closed in 2008]. But, that said, I made some of my closest friends there and I did have a hell of a lot of fun. What I lacked in academic pursuits, I made up for in drinking and stealing and collecting traffic cones and bollards.

“On my FIrst night in Holland Hall… we ate quails’ eggs and celery salt”

“I lived in Holland Hall for my first year, which at the time was known as being the crème de la crème of student accommodation. When you took an, ahem, overnight visitor up the hill back to Holland Hall for the night it was like you were pulling up at The Ritz, what with the mini fridge and the balcony and the double bed. But with it came a stigma as well; I felt a bit like a shamed MP whose ludicrous expenses are revealed. And although it was a comfortable year, it wasn’t the student life I’d signed up for. I wanted to eat cereal out of chipped mugs and talk about communism until 6 AM in a room of waifs and strays sleeping on tie-dye sheets, but on my first night in Holland Hall we all went back to a girl called Octavia’s room to eat quails’ eggs and celery salt.”

Alderton moved on to the Vic Street property in second year, which, despite the slugs, she describes as “glorious”. “Then a new flat on Hoopern Mews, which was a bit soulless and Holland Hall-like, but it was a good place to finally do some work and focus on passing my final year,” she continues.

Victoria (“Vic”) Street. Image: Derek Harper/Geograph

“In terms of going out, it was always Monday Mambo, Tuesday Arena [now Unit 1], Wednesday Timepiece, Thursday Riva, Friday Ram, Saturday Lemmy. I often tried to seek out fun on a Sunday but that would only ever amount to a world music night somewhere, so I think I gave up.”

One could argue that Alderton honed some skill in media as Publications Coordinator for RAG, a role that involved putting together and editing the magazines to go alongside RAG events, including the Safer Sex Ball and the fashion show.

“For one of the years I did it, I coedited with Sophie Wilkinson, who is still one of my best friends and a very successful freelance journalist, so it must have given us some experience,” she recounts. “The publications were completely insane as we didn’t have anyone telling us what we could or couldn’t do so it was basically two half-soaked friends staying up on InDesign, drinking beer and doing a scrap book of nonsense they found funny, and packaging it as a magazine – we featured a picture of Anthea Turner giving a piece of made-up advice in every publication, and on the back page we used to formally thank the font we had used.”

Following her time at Exeter, Alderton began with an arguably standard route for those looking to go into journalism after a degree, completing a Journalism MA at City University in London, then doing work experience and writing for websites and blogs. It was through this, however, that she got a lucky break that skyrocketed her career in ways that some might only dream of.

“We featured a picture of Anthea Turner giving a piece of made-up advice in every issue”

“One of the blogs I wrote was reviewing the first series of Made in Chelsea. The exec producer happened to read them and got me in for an interview to be a story producer. From there they gave me my own episode to story-produce, then kept me on for the series.
I ended up doing four series. I stayed there a while longer to do TV development, then moved to Objective productions to be script assistant on Fresh Meat and do drama development. Then I was given the column, then I went fully freelance, as during all the years I was working full-time in telly I had also been moonlighting as a journalist.”

Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. The way she describes her route to success, getting jobs on two prominent UK television programmes before writing for one of the country’s biggest papers, Alderton makes getting to the big hitters in media look like a walk in the park. And yet, reading her Sunday Times Style column, it’s clear why she has been successful. Aside from the graft she clearly put in during the early days through her work experience, Alderton is the kind of writer who makes you sit up and read. In her column, she charts the rollercoaster that is dating for millennials. Dating apps, relationships and speed dating are all touched upon.

Yet, Alderton is more than just a one-trick pony. Both in her articles and in her new podcast with Style’s Fashion Features Editor Pandora Sykes, she touches on topics that appeal to both those of her generation and beyond, including how to survive a life crisis, the appropriate age to have a baby and friend culling.

Real life is clearly Alderton’s bag. As an insider into the structured reality genre of programming including Made in Chelsea, (arguably her breakthrough moment), she knows all about this type of TV, and fear not, structured reality lovers – those programmes are very real. “When the cameras turn off on a structured reality shoot in which there is a huge reveal or conflict or new romance, the cast don’t take their hair and makeup off, all give each other a hug, get in an Addison Lee and cheerily say: ‘see you tomorrow!’,” Dolly explains. “There is no hair and makeup, there is no pretending. The screaming and the tears and the snogging goes on into the night and the next day and the day after that. There’s no clapper board for their lives; there’s no one shouting ‘cut’. Suspend any cultural snobbery you have and you realise that’s a sort of magic state of story-telling. And that engenders a particular kind of compulsive viewing.”

“Suspend any cultural snobbery … [reality TV is] a magic state of story-telling”

So how much groundwork goes into creating a TV show, with storylines that viewers are eager to follow (through and sometimes across series’), out of the lives of real people?

“You wouldn’t believe how much work goes into it,” Dolly replies. “I don’t think I ever left the office during my time working on Chelsea when there weren’t at least five people still sitting at their desks or having meetings or on the phone to a cast member pacing around the kitchen. It’s a machine, that programme. There’s a reason it has the stories and aesthetic values of a glossy American drama like Gossip Girl, yet it’s all reality – it’s because there’s a team of people, from runners to producers to editors, who are incredibly hard-working and intuitive and intelligent. It takes a particular type of person to work on structured reality TV and they have to be really dedicated. Because as much as people think or like to tell me otherwise, it really is a reality show. Nothing is made up. And to be able to exhibit and stay on top of real life and channel it into a stylish, funny, gripping package while also caring for the well-being of a huge cast – that’s a round-the-clock job.”

With this much knowledge of media at such a young age, Dolly Alderton is clearly going places. With an ability to turn her hand to such a variety of media output, who knows where we’ll see her in the future? One thing’s for sure: it certainly looks bright.

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